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Qin Yi obituary

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Qin Yi obituary

Qin Yi, who has died aged 100, was the last survivor of the quartet known as China’s “four great actresses”. She weathered the ups and downs of 20th-century Chinese history, and thrived under different political realities – becoming famous before the communists took over in 1949 and exhibiting an ability to connect with different generations of Chinese cinema-goers over an eight-decade career in the spotlight. Her remarkable onscreen life spanned the Chinese Republican regime and right through to the modern commercial blockbuster period.

Photograph: Xinhua/Alamy

 Provided by The GuardianPhotograph: Xinhua/Alamy

She embodied the development of the Chinese cinema industry. And the tribulations of her personal life, as a widow caring for a chronically ill child, won her much sympathy from the public in later years. To Beijing, Qin’s professional achievement as well as personal perseverance epitomised the core values of Chinese socialism. As a figure symbolising Chinese national cinema, created and promoted by the state, she was the only actor to be awarded both national titles of “People’s Artist” and “Most Beautiful Fighter”.

Qin Yi embodied the development of the Chinese cinema industry. Photograph: Alamy
© Provided by The GuardianQin Yi embodied the development of the Chinese cinema industry. Photograph: Alamy

Born into a wealthy family in Shanghai as Qin Dehe, she was one of eight daughters of Qu Suyue and Qin Lichen. Shortly after the second Sino-Japanese war broke out, Qin, as a teenager, left her family for Chongqing, the wartime capital, in 1938. There, she joined the Chinese forces, working as a nurse before her photogenic looks led to her being selected to be an actor. She played – amateurishly – a Chinese woman fighting against Japanese aggressors.

Her career began to take off in 1947 when she played the female lead in a melodrama, Distant Love, set during the anti-Japanese war. Qin played a Shanghai maid who marries her employer, a professor along the lines of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, before leaving him to devote herself to fighting against the Japanese.

In that film, Qin was a real scene-stealer even though Zhao Dan – the male lead – was a far bigger star and was given more lines of dialogue. It made her a household name.

Xia Yan, a leading communist playwright and polemicist, dubbed Qin and three other young screen stars of the 1940s, Shu Xiuwen, Bai Yang and Zhang Ruifang, China’s “four great actresses”. But Qin was the favourite of Zhou Enlai, who became the first premier of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. He called her “the most beautiful woman in China” for her youthful vitality both on stage and on screen.

For 17 years after the communists took over mainland China, Qin was prolific. In Railway Guerrilla (1956) she played an anti-Japanese revolutionary; in The Song of Youth (1959) a communist of deep conviction; and in Moyadai (1961) a dedicated doctor from an ethnic minority, the Dai people of Yunnan province, on China’s southern border. While these were all very popular, it was her role as a hard-working athlete in Woman Basketball Player No 5 (1957) that made her a superstar. “Qin gave a magnetic performance as a sports prodigy, albeit one whose raw talent needed taming – a Go-Team-New-China plotline that promoted team unity as national unity,” noted Christopher Rea, author of Chinese Film Classics, 1922–1949.

Qin Yi and her husband, Jin Yan – an actor nicknamed the Rudolph Valentino of Shanghai. Photograph: Alamy
 Provided by The GuardianQin Yi and her husband, Jin Yan – an actor nicknamed the Rudolph Valentino of Shanghai. Photograph: Alamy

Chinese cinema was remodelled as “people’s cinema”, with actors such as Qin setting the standards of good films for a socialist society. But then in 1966 came the decade-long Cultural Revolution. Despite her prominent role in shaping the sort of society that the communist leader Mao Zedong had in mind, Qin and her husband, Jin Yan – a Korean-born Chinese actor also known by the English name Raymond King and nicknamed the Rudolph Valentino of Shanghai – were taken to a rural cadre school in Fengxian County, Shanghai, for re-education through labour. Over that tumultuous decade, many actors and writers were tortured and died in desperate conditions. But Qin survived – and later on thrived again, partly due to the fact that she never publicly complained about the hardship she endured.

The films she starred in after the Cultural Revolution to some extent reflected this harsh experience, which became a source of inspiration for her performances. In The Stormy Sea (1978), she portrayed a director of a factory making fishing boats who was determined to develop the fishing industry for the national good, but was framed and imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. Playing the part provided her with a degree of therapy for the persecution she had suffered.

In A Dream, Not a Dream (1993), Qin took the role of a widowed opera singer looking after a schizophrenic daughter. Her off-screen experience as a resilient woman caring for her own schizophrenic son lay behind her screen portrayal of a tough mother figure who had to make sacrifices.

Qin was active until the final years of her life. One of her last films, For Love With You (2019), focused on a growing issue in China: an ageing society. During the filming, Qin herself had to be moved to a hospital due to poor health. She was 96 at the time. In the end, the crew decided to film her partly within the hospital. She regarded herself as lucky that she still had a passion she could pursue.

Qin’s husband died in 1983 and her son in 2007. She is survived by her daughter, Jin Feiheng, and a granddaughter, Meng Wei.

• Qin Yi, actor, born 31 January 1922; died 9 May 2022 

Reference: The Guardian: Lydia Wu and Vincent Ni

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